Posted in Characters, Writing

A Study in Archetypes: The Hero

Most writers – and readers – are familiar with Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, the universal plot that most famous works faithfully follow. Today I want to take a look at the characters that drive the journey: the archetypes that Campbell identified in the myths and legends he studied. From studying the universal archetypes, I hope I can make my own characters more successful. I’ve compiled what I’ve found and learned in my own reading here. I hope it’s helpful!

The Hero

Definition: The hero is the protagonist, the person the reader follows through the story. Pretty self-explanatory.

Characteristics

  • Heroes embody the values of their culture. They are the prototypes of the society of their Ordinary World, and even if they’re leaders, they represent the ordinary people of their world. This may change by the end of the story: in fact, it should.
  • Heroes are dynamic. In other words, they change. They may be their home’s favorite poster boy at the beginning, but by the end they may have learned to rebel against tradition. The Hero’s Journey changes the protagonist.
  • Heroes have a flaw. The Hero can’t grow and change if they are initially flawless. The Hero must have some weakness that they have to get over in order to complete the Hero’s Journey.
  • Heroes are fully-developed, round characters. They are not two-dimensional stereotypes. While most stories contain the Hero archetype, not all protagonists are the same. That’s because the author fully develops their character instead of just recycling the archetype over and over again. The archetype is just a foundation for a character that you yourself must grow.

Examples

  • Harry Potter – Harry Potter
  • Luke Skywalker – Star Wars
  • Jane Eyre – Jane Eyre
  • Pretty much every mythological Hero
Jane Eyre is one of my favorite books, and also one of the better-known female leads who follow the Hero’s Journey.

DOS:

  • Make the Hero relatable. Readers must be able to sympathize with the protagonist if you want them to, you know, actually read your story.
  • Write an original Hero. We’ve seen enough gorgeous teen girls who think they’re too ugly for the brooding love interest; we’ve read enough noble dude-bros who were destined from birth to become High King of the Pseudo-Medieval Kingdom.
  • Change the Hero. The Hero absolutely must undergo some character change to be considered complex, and the Hero’s Journey simply isn’t the Hero’s Journey if the journey doesn’t affect the Hero. Your character arc can be any shape, but the Hero must undergo change.

DONTS:

  • Make your Hero perfect. If you make the Hero some unattainable, flawless character, the audience will be unable sympathize with them. People don’t care about perfect Heroes. They want Heroes with flaws, scars, and weaknesses – people just like them.
  • Make your Hero invincible. This is like the last one, but has more to do with plot than readers. If your Hero has no problem taking down the enemies and villains lurking within the world of adventure, then readers won’t be interested in the story. Keep the stakes high by giving your Hero weaknesses that villains can exploit.
  • Forget to develop your Hero. This is an archetype like any other, but each Hero should be unique. Brainstorm character traits for your Hero beyond just the typical characteristics of the archetype. Remember, an archetype is flat, but your protagonist should be fully-developed. If you need a jump-start in developing your characters, check out my character profile template.

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Author:

feminist + writer + christian

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